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The Swift Hand of Justice Rebukes Myspace for Shattering the Sanctity of Privacy

In a settlement announced yesterday by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the present owners of music-information-sharing service Myspace (now with a small “s”) agreed never to do again what it cannot really do now even if it wanted to: share its members’ personal identification with a parent company that runs a major advertising network.

Blast from the past

For those who don’t remember Myspace, much less this once-prominent case, we need to go back to 2008, before social networks were also platforms, and APIs were things that Microsoft got sued for not disclosing. In this era, the exchange of data between MySpace (then with a big “S”) and its parent company in 2008, Fox Interactive Media, took place without the use of extra details such as encryption and permissions. Since MySpace no longer treated FIM as a third-party, it enabled FIM’s advertising platform – then called “Fox Audience Network,” or FAN – to serve advertisements to a MySpace member by serving up his “Friend ID,” essentially a series of decimal digits.

The way you reconstructed that member’s MySpace page URL was simply by tacking that Friend ID onto the end of the domain name From there, pulling up every personal detail that “friend” already shared on MySpace, including his full name, was a trivial matter.

FIM’s assembly of such a powerful advertising network out in the open, blatantly, without members’ consent, was once one of the hot-button issues of the Web. It helped make the MySpace brand synonymous with “privacy violation” and may have helped trigger the exodus of users to Facebook, which had grown from an interesting contender to the undisputed social networking champion in the course of 2008 alone.

Justice delayed…

Some would say Myspace has already served its sentence, with the trimming of its “s” as just one symbol of its penitence. In the settlement agreement order, the FTC commissioners mandated that Myspace must now submit itself to a biannual review of its privacy policies for the next 20 years. It then went into substantial detail in ensuring that mandate is carried over into whatever form Myspace takes in the future, and whichever parent or parents end up owning it.

Despite Myspace’s fall into irrelevance, the ruling itself does have some pertinence, particularly with respect to whose pillar the FTC looks to for support. The U.S. currently has a safe harbor agreement with the European Union, which presents a framework for U.S. companies to avoid violating EU law when they exchange potentially personally identifiable data with other parties. The framework mandates that online services notify users when their personal data is about to be shared with others, give them tools for researching how that data may be used and give them the option of canceling such sharing. It’s really a trade agreement between governments, but until the U.S. is capable of codifying such language in a law that pertains to native commerce, it’s the best the FTC can do. It charged Myspace with violating the principles of that agreement, and it was successful in eking out a settlement.

That fact may give lawmakers cause to continue delaying any serious discussion of hardening U.S. privacy law for yet another term of Congress.

There are plenty of tech-savvy Web users young enough not to remember what MySpace was. At a time when the Internet industry was just waking from the delerium of the “bursting bubble,” MySpace was the first great hope for building viable properties again. In July 2005, it was acquired by FIM, which rode its wave of success, at least at first. Then, in a stunning move that may have changed the Internet forever, Google paid FIM $900 million not to launch its own search engine, effectively stunting the service’s growth. (No such deal has ever been reached between Google and Facebook, some would say to the latter’s credit.)

The service is not dead, however. RWW’s John Paul Titlow reported in February that the steep drop in Myspace’s user base may have at last subsided, settling at perhaps one-fourth what it was at its peak. Still, the service’s diminished status is commemorated today by the fact that Google treats the term “MySpace” in the context of a query as a misspelling of “Facebook.”

Now that’s justice.

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